The only things I’ve ever learned to proficiency are skiing, climbing and the written word. At this writing I am 77 years old so the physical capabilities of the first two have understandably dropped off, plummeted really, especially the last few years, with a steepness that gives this old skier a better appreciation of the young lads and lasses skiing, say, the West Face of Mt. Deborah. Still, one hopes (or at least fantasizes) that the skills of the wordy third proficiency as well as the human qualities that fuel them all continue to be honed, to expand and be worth the exchange. Skiing has been integral to my life since the late 1940s when my family lived in a series of small rental homes at South Shore Lake Tahoe which was then a sparsely populated Sierra Nevada mountain paradise with enormous snowfalls that no longer exist and will not return in my lifetime. I was an only child of parents recovering from WWII who lived to work, party, play cards and chess, listen to the radio in that pre-TV time and had no interest in the outdoors except the economic one of hunting in the fall and fishing in the summer, and, after I became a junior ski racer, taking me to races and partying with the other parents. Those snow-covered mountains (Sierra Nevada in Spanish) were refuge and mentor, the most beautiful, fulfilling aspect of my young life. Skiing was everything.
For a few years we lived in Zephyr Cove, the only family for several miles in winter so no friends were close. On a nearby hill I had a ski jump and a slalom course and most weekday winter afternoons I sped around hand-cut willow slalom poles and launched some 50 or 60 feet through the air, over and over and over, climbing back up after each adventure by myself. Those courses and jumps were my available friends and hanging with them until dark was not done in the spirit of training for competition (though it was great training), but, rather for adventure, self-exploration, pure fun and, seen in retrospect, therapy. When I tired of jumps and slalom I climbed up and skied down the hills and mountains above Zephyr Cove in solitary, self-centered, backcountry contentment. I don’t remember how or from whom, but I picked up enough awareness of avalanche danger in those years that I always had a healthy terror of staying out of them and chose my solitary pre-teen mountain rambles accordingly. Weekends were spent at races or at White Hills, the closest T-Bar serviced ski area.
That was the basic foundation of a life that wound up being devoted to skiing. Devotion was not a concept I thought much about, certainly not in relation to something that was everything, that is, skiing. It was just life, a good one at that. And it never occurred to me that one’s life needed justification, not until a few years ago after a philosophical discussion with my old friend the great skier Pepi Stiegler. But Pepi, as he has so often been in a life of high accomplishment devoted to skiing, is correct. (Among other things, Pepi raced in five events in two Olympics winning three medals, placing 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 15th in them.)
Thoreau is correct as well. No matter how a person lives or how devoted to anything (or not)—to skiing or medicine, science or banking, music or engineering—there will be a cost. The deeper the devotion the more exchanged. Part of the cost to non-mainstream devotees of lifestyles like skiing is touched upon in this comment made by an ex-wife to a mutual friend, “The reason Dick is a good skier and climber and writer is the same reason he is impossible to live with.”
After nearly seven decades of skiing on the high bright peaks and down the dark cold valleys of life throughout the world with the best of skiing comrades and friends, I can say it has been and remains a wonderful life on the ever changing edge. I’ll leave the justifying and judging to those who feel qualified, and encourage every young skier laying tracks of passion down snowfields of devotion to keep in mind the wisdom and humanity of those two old, beautiful philosophers Thoreau and Stiegler.